It’s fitting, I suppose, that no matter how overused zombies seem to be, they keep moaning and shuffling their way back onto our screens.
Yet, despite videogame zombies embodying over saturation, I find myself completely unable to criticise developers for continuing to reach for such a classic horror staple. This latest title from Call Of Juarez developer, Techland, proves that it’s still fun to cut your way through endless hordes of brain-chomping undead.
Dead Island is absolutely crammed full of the bastards. You can’t turn around without some moaning idiot trying to eat your liver. I’m sure the overuse of zombies was a constant source of debate in the Techland offices, but the studio’s done an excellent job of capturing the simple pleasure of morality-free pretend violence that makes zombies the perfect videogame baddies.
In many ways, Dead Island displays a very derivative approach to game design. The endless crush of stumbling corpses naturally draws comparisons with Dead Rising, and the lush island of Banoi bears a similarity to the expansive open world of Just Cause. In combat, planting your boot into an approaching enemy recalls Duke Nukem, via innovative shooter Bulletstorm.
This is not an accusation of plagiarism. Not least because every element is formed into something that improves the overall experience. You rarely explore Dead Island’s open world unbidden, but moving through it with the knowledge that you could veer off course at any time makes the experience feel much more real. The hordes of zombies are a lot sparser than in Dead Rising, but evoke a similar sense of never-ending bad guys to kill.
Techland has done an excellent job making its zombies fun to kill, but in the process have forgotten to introduce any element of fear. To take just one example: your own life is so worthless that it’s sometimes beneficial to let yourself be eaten alive.
Respawning is instant, and erases none of your progress. If you’ve half beaten that large angry monster when you die, he’ll remain half beaten when you return to life with full health. In some specific cases, I found that dying in combat teleported me beyond the section I was struggling with. Dying quickly becomes literally the easiest way out of a tricky situation.
Other non-zombies are no better at bringing home the terrors of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Numerous survivors have useful things they’d like your adventurer to help them with, and although they sound desperate, they lack the forcefulness required to properly evoke terror.
This has a lot do with how their requests are conveyed. The population of Dead Island are almost totally sedentary, delivering every ounce of their exposition through dialogue. This is a lot cheaper than actually building unique animations, but it’s a bar to narrative immersion that is prevalent throughout the game.
Think of the finest, most engaging videogames, and you’ll often discover characters that use movement and words to express themselves. Speech alone cannot convey realistic emotion if the speaker’s body stands motionless.
The occasional cut scenes do no better at providing horrific narrative impetus. To begin with, catering for co-op play presents some issues. No matter how many players you have wandering about with you at any one time, each video section features the full compliment of four characters.
This odd dissonance is the first in a huge list of problems I have with these dramatic interludes. Games have had an easy road for too long in this department. The medium has advanced to the point where cut scenes should be critiqued on a equal plain with every other narrative medium and, in this context, they are abysmal.
A handful of voice actors give admirable emotion to the game’s quest-givers, but utterly fail to make the lead characters sound anywhere close to convincing. The writing is equally at fault. At one point, a pivotal bad guy shouts “Son of a bitch!” at a woman he has just shot. If you’re going to recycle stock invectives, at least find one that applies to the right gender.
Dead Island makes frequent attempts to pluck at our heart strings, but fails completely every time. During one notable moment, the possibility of a key NPC having been raped is hinted at. It’s a valiant attempt to evoke feelings of true horror, but it feels as if the developers dare not do anything more than gently prod at the possibility. The idea that adults can withstand 30 hours of gore, but couldn’t possibly cope with the statement of off-camera sexual violence is an extremely skewed idea.
These terrible interludes, coupled with incredibly forgiving death mechanics, lead to total narrative apathy. The joy of Dead Island game is in killing zombies, gaining levels, and finding loot. As soon as the pleasure of that repetition runs dry, the game is essentially over. (There is, of course, the usual co-op caveat. Messing around with your friends can be great fun in a game of any quality, and the semi-open world structure of Dead Island is well suited to dicking about.)
You can rent or buy Dead Island at Blockbuster.co.uk.